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PRIMM MEADOW – What lesson should we take from a walk through this 500-year-old stand of Ponderosa pine?

When Frank and Edna Parker homesteaded 160 acres here in 1897, the Gold Creek basin 17 miles northeast of Missoula was covered with trees wider than a Remington 700 hunting rifle was long. Today, a deer hunter needs just 20 minutes to walk from one edge of the grove to the other, from clear-cut logging scar to clear-cut logging scar.

One could look at the denuded country around Primm Meadow and feel outrage: How could anyone have thought this was a responsible way to manage a forest? But that’s like asking a Civil War surgeon why he sawed so many soldiers’ legs off. Lots of science and accepted business principles at the time backed up the logging that supplied what became the world’s largest plywood mill downstream at Bonner.

One could also probe Primm Meadow for clues why as to Montana has played such an outsize role in United States forest policy over the decades. At its timber-industry height, the nation’s fourth-largest state only contributed about 10 percent of the nation’s demand for lumber. Today, Montana provides barely a tenth of that amount. Yet Forest Service Region 1, headquartered in Missoula, has produced the last three chiefs of the federal agency.

A history of controversial calculations led to treating the state’s public forests as a giant tree plantation, justified “accelerated old-growth liquidation” of its largest stands, and then triggered the virtual shutdown of its federal timber supply. To understand why, it helps to know where trees grow and why we cut them down.

Today, Montana supplies about 1.5 percent of the nation’s demand for lumber and plywood. Its steep mountainsides grow mostly lodgepole, Douglas fir, larch and Ponderosa pine. They take around a century to mature, compared to the 30- to 40-year regrowth cycle in the rainforests of Washington and Oregon.

In 2015, Montana produced 535 million board-feet of lumber. Oregon produced 3.7 billion board-feet. The Southern Pine Region of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and the Carolinas produced 16.6 billion board-feet – almost 60 percent of U.S. production.

And the United States only mills about two-thirds of its own demand for softwood lumber. Virtually all the rest comes from Canada – hence the furor over last month’s expiration of the Canadian Softwood Agreement that governs how much lumber can be exported from our northern neighbor.

Take a step further. The United States ranks fourth in the world for forest area, behind the Russian Federation, Brazil and Canada. At 1.9 billion acres, the Russians oversee more trees than the United States and Canada combined.

And our competitors cut their forests at an amazing rate. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Forests report concludes that global demand for timber will triple by 2050 as developing countries increase their appetite for paper and lumber. Brazil has so stepped up to that market that it has just 16 years of timber inventory left to cut. Nigeria has already erased 99 percent of its primary forest.

Why care about how other countries manage their forests? A new study from the University of Washington published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE shows how large-scale forest losses on one continent can change climate on the other side of the world. For example, tree loss in the western United States causes cooling in Siberia, slowing forest growth there. It also causes drier conditions in the Southeast, hurting forests in the Carolinas. Coincidentally, it actually improves growing conditions south of the equator by making the climate cooler and wetter there.

“This study shows that local events like forest die-offs in one part of the globe influence climate and ecology in other, often-distant locations,” said Tim Kratz of the National Science Foundation, which funded the study. “Unraveling these far-reaching effects is critical to understanding how nature works at continental to global scales.”

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Americans started transforming North American forests as soon as they got off the boats from Europe in the 1600s. The Society of American Foresters estimates between then and 1900, nearly 30 percent of the United States’ original forest was converted to other uses, mainly agriculture.

The timber industry moved in nomadic fashion across the American frontier. After reducing the Northeast’s forest from almost 300 million acres at the Revolutionary War to 144 million acres by 1900, loggers moved west to the Great Lakes region. Between 1830 and 1930, Minnesota loggers alone cut 68 billion board-feet of pine, which the Minnesota Historical Society described as “enough lumber to fill boxcars stretching from the earth to the moon and halfway back again.” By the Great Depression, the state’s timber industry was reduced to pulp, paper and matchsticks.

Montana got swept into the Gold Rush migration in 1862, just as the Civil War was getting underway. According to retired research forester Steve Arno, the state found itself perfectly positioned to become a national timber player.

“When railroads made their intercontinental link-up in the 1880s, we were ready to go with a big mill at Bonner and another big mill at Hamilton,” Arno said. “The quality and abundance of old-growth Ponderosa pine was a big factor. It was quite accessible, growing in the valleys and lower slopes. So we were all set up for export to the Midwest through the rails. The Montana stuff was very competitive.”

The Anaconda Company acquired most of the timberlands north of Missoula, including Gold Creek and what's now the 28,000-acre Lubrecht Experimental Forest. Anaconda loggers cut most of the big trees off the Lubrecht by 1937, at one point hauling 8,000 modern-sized truckloads a year just to line its mine shafts. When the company donated it to the University of Montana, almost every tree wider than 12 inches around had been cut.

The Parkers had a tough life raising potatoes, hay and beef cattle along the West Fork of Gold Creek. They mortgaged the ranch in 1915 for $1,600, and sold the timber rights to Anaconda in 1926. But the company didn't get around to blasting a road along the precipitous Gold Creek Canyon until the late 1950s.

Meanwhile, Mahala and Charles Primm bought the homestead in 1938. The story goes that Charlie hit himself in the leg with an ax one day, and Mahala tried to keep him from going to town for treatment. She suspected, correctly, that he might not return to the hardscrabble life under the tall Ponderosas. When she finally relented, the doctor said Charles would have died if she'd stalled two more days. Learning that, Mahala reportedly said she'd wished she'd waited.

Although Anaconda continued to cut timber, its land manager George Neff grew fond of the homestead and its grove of big trees. It remained uncut when Mahala Primm died in 1977 at the age of 79. Two years later, her son Morris sold the land to Champion International. Company forester Ernie Corrick sent a proposal to the board of directors recommending Primm Meadows be included in the corporation's “Special Place in the Forest” program. He suggested calling it “The Director's Grove.”

The Champion directors approved, and the trees stayed standing when the company sold its holdings to Plum Creek Timber Co. in 1993. The Five Valleys Land Trust acquired a conservation easement on the land 14 years ago.

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1993 was also the year Champion completed its "accelerated old-growth liquidation" strategy. Over the previous 20 years, Champion had tripled its harvest. Much of that took place in the mountains around Primm Meadow.

“That’s why Champion divested,” explained Peter Kolb, Montana State University extension forester. “They said they're going to convert value on the land that's not producing a rate of return that's fair. Once we’ve liquidated that investment, the remaining land has a rate of return that doesn't meet our business model. They over-harvested their own lands, or from a business perspective, converted it to money for the company.”

The companies then turned to the Forest Service, seeking access to federal timberlands. University of Montana forest economist Alan McQuillan recalled Corrick announcing that Champion needed to buy 60 percent of the Forest Service's available Montana timber after 1992 or the company wouldn't be here to stay.

Congress also began receiving reports of “phantom forests” of greatly exaggerated tree inventories and underestimated costs of timber sale preparation and road construction. A General Accounting Office study in 1994 found the Forest Service failed to consider factors like wildlife habitat, sensitive plant species, or recreation in estimating its available timber production area. In one example, the study reported that between 1991 and 1993, costs of preparing timber sales on the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon climbed 147 percent.

But by then, the agency had plunged into its own rethinking of its mission. After selling around 12 billion board-feet of timber a year in the 1980s nationally, the Forest Service reduced its Allowable Sale Quantity, or ASQ, to about one-third that amount by 1993.

Locally, forest supervisors were also cranking back the spigot of federal timber. Lolo National Forest Supervisor Orville Daniels whacked his ASQ from 120 million board-feet to 50 million.

Now the national forests in Forest Service Region 1 cut an average 13,000 acres annually during the past 10 years. In the same time, the agency ran prescribed burning operations on 49,000 acres. Meanwhile, wildfires burned an average 500,000 acres a year.

“We imported our timber management from northern Europe, where they were growing trees on sites denuded of forests from subsistence living by peasants for hundreds of years,” Arno said. “They were reestablishing forests in a damper climate that didn’t recognize the role for fire. Ecology as a science started getting traction in the early 1900s, quite a while after our forestry traditions had gotten established. And we didn’t recognize the importance of disturbance until the 1960s – the whole science of disturbance ecology."

Forests need those churning events, Arno explained, to refertilize the soils, clear out dead downfall, and give fire-tolerant species like Ponderosa pine a chance to out-compete the water-hogging Douglas fir. But with modern levels of home-building in the woods, unburned fuels on the forest floor and concern over smoke pollution, fire alone may no longer be a viable management tool.

Primm Meadow stands as an example of that disturbance ecology, where small fires frequently burned the undergrowth away from the big Ponderosa pines and left that cathedral-like park. 

“It’s almost an accident it was saved,” Arno said. “It’s is a vignette of the original forest, a beautiful, fire-safe environment. The 2003 Mineral-Primm fire swept all around it. It was a stand-replacing burn in forest all around it, but not in Primm Meadow.”

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